I’ve been in a couple of Twitter threads about Old vs Nu D&D and specifically about the concept that playing RPGs is like writing a story. As someone who does both, I can say that they are nothing alike. In fact, one of the things I enjoy most about my Sunday night D&D game is that it’s a break from writing (even though, of late, I haven’t been doing much writing… alas.)
So, as a thought exercise, I am going to show how D&D games create a story at the table, starting from nothing and improving a world.
Let’s say there’s a DM and five players named A, B, C, D, and E. At the start of the game the DM has some random encounter tables and a couple of blank dungeon maps. No setting created, just “a small village in the middle of the woods.”
The players roll up brand new characters, starting with 3d6 in order Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma for stats. (I am going to roll these randomly for this illustration, just like the players would.) They come up with:
A: 11,11,11,8,12,8 This one is a bit of a puzzle. Not really good at anything. After some thought the player decides on Cleric.
B: 16, 7, 14, 7, 11, 13 Fighter type, certainly. The player decides to go with Paladin. In fact, he’s going to be a Paladin of the same faith as the Cleric, assigned as the Cleric’s bodyguard, since the Cleric is clearly no warrior.
C: 5,8,12,8,11,11 Another Cleric? No, the player decides on Thief. His low strength, he decides, is do to the character’s small size–not a Fantasy race like Dwarf of Gnome, but a child, an Oliver Twist who has escaped his Fagin and ran off into the woods, running into the Cleric and joining with him for safety.
D: 10,11,11,9,13,7 What do you do when your highest stat is Constitution? The player decides on Ranger, a hearty outdoorsman who is used to surviving alone in the wilderness for months at a time, living on what he can hunt. His low Charisma is from not being around people very often. The Paladin suggests that the party hired the Ranger as a local guide, and the Ranger agrees.
E: 8,10,7,4,10,8 That’s unfortunate. Only two stats that rise as high as average. For lack of any better options the character decides to make him a Mage. An old man with a long white beard who tries to convince people he’s a great wizard, but he’s actually a retired librarian, E decides. An amusing idea for a character. A random roll for starting spell yields Protection From Evil, which will come in handy.
That’s the party. Now what are they doing? A mission trip, someone suggests, and the DM decides to go with that. The Cleric has been sent by his temple to the wilderness to found a church to serve the scattered small settlements, and the Paladin was sent to protect him. They hired the Ranger as a guide, and ran across the Thief and the Mage, who both decided to tag along for safety.
A Temple to Whom? The Great Thunder Eagle, the Cleric says, making up the name on the spot. A Nature Spirit, ruler of the Heavens. The Ranger says that would suit his character and becomes a convert. (Neither the Thief nor the Mage are particularly religious.)
Even with the inevitable table talk and jokes this is all settled fairly quickly and it’s time to play.
The DM tells the party, “This town is in fear–just north of here is an old graveyard and sometimes at night unnatural things come out of there and terrorize the villagers.”
The Paladin jumps at the bait, “If we were to go to the graveyard and lay this evil to rest–?” he suggests.
“The townspeople would embrace the Great Thunder Eagle with open arms,” the DM assures him.
Well, that’s a plan.
The party buys equipment for the journey while the DM hastily reviews the section on Undead.
The graveyard is one full day’s travel the DM decides, and rolls for a random wilderness encounter. A party of Goblins waylays the party, demanding a toll for passing through. After a quick discussion the party refuses to pay and everyone rolls initiative.
During the battle the goblins are defeated, but both the Paladin and the Ranger are injured. They decide to camp for a day for both natural and divine healing. Another wilderness encounter roll while they are in camp and–oh no!–more Goblins.
The DM decides that these Goblins have already run across the bodies of the former group and are in no mood to talk–they come out swinging. Despite this, the party manages to take them without further wounding, and now have the treasure from both groups of Goblins–not a huge amount, but enough to replenish supplies and maybe upgrade armor and weapons.
The party gets back on the road and gets to the graveyard near dusk. The party decides to camp outside the graveyard and to go exploring in the morning.
During the night the DM decides that they are close enough to the graveyard that an encounter roll isn’t necessary–they are going to be attacked. A group of skeletons pushes out of the soil, but between the Cleric Turning Undead and the Mage casting Protection From Evil they are driven off without a fight.
The next day the party searches the graveyard and finds a large tomb with the door smashed open–from the inside. In the tomb they find the floor has been torn open, revealing a tunnel leading down into darkness. The DM is ready to use the blank map he’d prepared and improvs the first room.
“This is a burial chamber, with several biers for large caskets, but all of the caskets have been smashed. The bones of the dead lie scattered all around. The walls were once covered with religious carvings and art, but they have been desecrated.”
What sort of religious art? Why, The Great Thunder Eagle, of course. And what’s worse, the room has been reconsecrated as a shrine to The Evil Serpent God who is the enemy of The Great Thunder Eagle!
At this point it’s late and the DM suggests calling it quits for the night, to pick up with the party exploring the tunnels under the graveyard next session. It’s a thrilling cliff-hanger to end on, and the party will be stoked for next week’s game.
The DM, meanwhile, has a theme to use to populate his map, and an idea of the capabilities of the party to serve as a guide for how deadly to make the monsters and traps.
And none of it was planned out in advance. It just happened organically as the players and DM sat down to talk things out. In addition to the lair of the evil undead, there’s also the matter of the Goblins in the woods, who have now lost two groups to these adventurers and can’t be expected to be happy about it.